Theatre review: Amid The Clouds loses itself in dream-like imagery

A scene from Amid The Clouds performed by Mehr Theatre Group. -- PHOTO: ABAS KOSARI
A scene from Amid The Clouds performed by Mehr Theatre Group. -- PHOTO: ABAS KOSARI

Water, an ever-present motif in Amid The Clouds, is fluid, adaptable and engulfing. But even though the stage was awash with crystalline beads by the end of the 70-minute show, the play remained for me dry, static and untouchable.

What prevented me from diving into in Amid The Clouds, which was written and directed by Iranian practitioner Amir Reza Koohestani, was its extremely spartan nature. A dearth of props is understandable, but there was also minimal movement around the stage, and a lack of interaction between the performers, the environment and each other.

The issue tackled in the show - migration - is a complicated and prickly one. To put a human face on cold statistics, the play needed to convey the urgent desperation which spurs such a journey, as well as the strength needed to undertake it, but those elements never quite surfaced from Koohestani's whirlpool of dream-like imagery.

An interview in the programme booklet noted the "extreme bareness and concentration" of Koohestani's work, and the director himself admits that he was "forced into this form" because of a lack of resources as a budding theatre practitioner. But now that Koohestani has toured festivals in Iran and overseas, and has set up his own theatre company, surely he has access to more?

The show, part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, opens with a young man, Imour, drowning when the boat he is in capsizes on an illegal crossing from Bosnia to Croatia. The stage is still dark, but we read this off a surtitle screen as a recording is played in Farsi. Sitting at the bottom of the river, he talks about fish sniffing his feet, and how he is going to die in three, two, one.

We then meet Zina, a pregnant woman who wants to leave her current group of travelling companions because of their uncharitable attitude towards her pregnancy. She believes that her baby is the result of divine intervention, and wants to claim asylum for her and her unborn child in England.

The unlikely pair travel together, crossing mountains, in trains, in planes. They are always on the move, fuelled by an idea of a utopia just around the bend.

The show toggles between fable and fact, and at times is fantastically, dreamily poetic. Emerging from a tank of water, rivulets coursing off her drenched clothing, Imour's mother tells us how a river impregnated her, and left her exiled and shunned by her tribe.

We hear of Imour's dreams of his mother, that she is naked, with a rifle attached to each breast. As the rifles suck the life from her frail body, she turns them on herself and pulls the trigger.

These surreal sequences are played out among a set made up of three tanks, two smaller ones about two feet by two feet each, and a larger one about three times the size. They are each filled with water, a powerful motif In Amid The Clouds which evokes so many things: death, rebirth, journey and hope.

But the set was also what separated the two actors. Many times, they each spoke to the audience standing in their own small tanks, far away from each other. Even during their last night together, just before Imour's attempt at crossing the English Channel, they both spoke facing the ceiling, lying one on top of the other, bunk-bed style.

There were points during the play where I felt that spark, and tasted the tang of desperation which must have driven them out of their homeland. During Imour's first encounter with Zina, he tells her hopelessly, "It's just me and this shirt now". I also sensed their feral fear when Imour spoke about having to fit in or be caught, which resulted in him shaving off his moustache and worrying about Zina's headscarf.

But a very real journey which happens to very real people was drowned in parables, and approached with a strange sense of detachment.

Amid The Clouds might speak more strongly to people with a deeper understanding of migration, or to people who are personally contemplating such a move. But to me, it felt like I was watching their trek through a filter, and try as I might to unwarp the image for a clearer view, there was not enough to go on.

Book it

AMID THE CLOUDS

Where: School of the Arts, Studio Theatre

When: Sept 12 and 13, 8pm

Admission: $35 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)